Situation Report

A weekly digest of national security, defense, and cybersecurity news from Foreign Policy reporters Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer, formerly Security Brief. Delivered Thursday.

Security Brief: NATO Braces for Trump; Pompeo Continues Asia Tour Following Tense North Korea Visit

Top NATO leaders worry the U.S. president is raring for a fight.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and Amy Cheng
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks alongside Vice President Mike Pence, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, at the White House on May 17. (Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks alongside Vice President Mike Pence, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, at the White House on May 17. (Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images)

By Robbie Gramer and Amy Cheng

Good morning and happy Monday from a hot and muggy Washington. Your usual security brief author, Elias Groll, is out of town for vacation so I’ll be filling in. Send any tips or questions to me at

It’s a big week in the world of security, with President Donald Trump preparing for a trip to Europe (after he picks his next Supreme Court nominee, of course) and his diplomat-in-chief shuffling around Asia before meeting him in Brussels….


…where top NATO leaders are bracing for Trump, who appears to be raring for a fight. The top issue for Trump? Defense spending. Trump says European allies don’t spend enough and the United States is shouldering too much of the burden, and enough is enough.


NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg insists in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that the allies are stepping up — he points to the fact that now eight of the 29 members meet the alliance threshold of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense, up from three in 2014. But he also says Trump shouldn’t focus solely on that during a big summit between all NATO leaders on July 11 and 12 in Brussels. NATO is still engaged in Afghanistan, is rolling out a new training mission in Iraq, and managing a flurry of military exercises to show Russia it’s still got some Cold War-era bite.


U.S. and NATO officials fear all of that will be overshadowed by what could be a testy meeting between Trump and allies. Read all about it here.


(And while you’re at it, read some new reports from the Center for a New American Security and Center for Strategic and International Studies on why there’s a lot more to NATO than that pesky percentage sign.)


The Putin Question: What else keeping U.S. allies up at night these days? Well in addition to ragging on alliances, trade wars, a withdrawal from the Iran deal and Paris climate accords, there’s Trump’s affinity for Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he will meet on the heels of the NATO summit.


Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s former national security advisor, even voiced concerns about Trump’s fondness for Putin while he was in the White House, U.S. officials tell the Washington Post: “The president thinks he can be friends with Putin,” he reportedly said. “I don’t know why, or why he would want to be.”


Allies fear Trump could be unilaterally offering up big concessions to Putin in his push to repair relations with Moscow: canceling U.S. military exercises in eastern Europe or recognizing Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula as a part of Russia.


One thing that’s not on the table? Withdrawing U.S. troops from Germany. “There is nothing being said at all about the troop alignment in Germany or anything that would change the 32,000 troop force that we have in Germany,” said U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison on a press call last week previewing the NATO Summit. Her comments came after the Washington Post reported the Pentagon was assessing the cost of such a move as U.S.-German relations hit new lows.


The Heritage Foundation, one of Washington’s most prominent conservative think tanks, tweeted out a not-so-subtle hint for Trump in the run-up to his one-on-one with Putin, saying the Russian president’s “track record shows he can’t be trusted.”


Unclear if he’ll read the tweet before the meeting.


Meanwhile, back in Asia: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is reeling from a testy meeting with North Koreans during his third trip to the Hermit Kingdom, this time with a full press pool in tow.

How did his meetings on denuclearization go? Well, it depends who you ask. At first, Pompeo said the meetings were “productive.” Then, the North Koreans said no, actually the talks were “regrettable” and “cancerous.” Pompeo dismissed claims in North Korean media that his demands for denuclearization were “gangster-like.” And then he jetted off to the next leg of his multi-country trip, Vietnam, without getting to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — an apparent snub.


Bloomberg’s Nick Wadhams, who was traveling with Pompeo, has a great play-by-play on the secretary of state’s crazy 27 hours in Pyongyang that’s well worth reading.


No one said diplomacy was easy.


Then there’s the submarines: As North Korea drags down nuclear negotiations with the Trump administration, it is also busy beefing up its submarine program. According to Kim Hack-yong, the former chair of South Korea’s defense committee, North Korea may be developing a submarine capable of launching ballistic missiles strapped with nuclear warheads, the Wall Street Journal reports. Along with activities like expanding missile- and plutonium-building facilities, continuous nuclear build-up stands in stark contrast to Trump’s narrative that North Korea is “no longer a nuclear threat.”


Lindsey Graham: China to blame for slowdown in North Korea talks: In Washington, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), an outspoken lawmaker and prominent voice on foreign policy issues, said China should shoulder its fair share of the blame for the bogging down of U.S.-North Korea talks. “I see China’s hands all over this. We are in a fight with China,” Graham told Fox News. “There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s the Chinese pulling the North Koreans back.”


Hungry for more? If you can’t get enough North Korea coverage, learn more about the shady North Korean spymaster and ultimate regime survivalist who is testing Pompeo’s resolve on the other side of the negotiating table. Read Foreign Policy’s mini-profile on Kim Yong-chol.


U.S. Army corporal killed in Afghanistan: U.S. Army Cpl. Joseph Maciel was killed in Afghanistan and two other U.S. service members were wounded in an insider attack on Saturday, the Washington Post reports. Maciel was part of a mission meant to train and advise Afghan security forces. The two service members wounded in the attack are reportedly in stable condition, but no further details have been released.


On Afghanistan’s drug war: The failed drug war in Afghanistan is continuing to fail, thanks in large part to an Obama administration decision to shelve plans to tackle the issue, according to a new Politico investigation. Despite the United States pouring tens of billions of dollars into stabilizing and developing Afghanistan, the country still supplies a staggering 90 percent of the world’s heroin, according to Politico — money that helps fuel the Taliban’s war against the Afghan government and U.S. and allied security forces.


Treasure Hunters: Let’s head back to the Pentagon, where we have an important update about the quest for secret stashes of alcohol. For those who know the Pentagon well, it’s the stuff of myths and legends: For years, there have been rumors floating of a secret fighter pilots bar hidden somewhere in the bowels of the Pentagon. But one intrepid reporter actually found it — and it did not disappoint. Jeff Schogol of Task and Purpose describes the scene:  pilot helmets and dummy missiles hanging from the ceiling, a sign reading “Fighter Pilot Mafia,” and of course the wooden bar itself. We hear the establishment does not serve alcohol 24/7 anymore (BYOB?) but it is rumored to offer freshly popped jalapeño popcorn … to anyone who can find the right room.


As war goes retro, is the Pentagon stuck in the future? The U.S. military has been trying to buy a simple, light, and cheap counterinsurgency aircraft for over a decade to confront terrorists and insurgents in battlefields from Afghanistan to Africa. But cheap and effective ain’t how the Pentagon works.


In case you missed it, FP’s Sharon Weinberger has a must-read tale of the U.S. military’s push to buy light attack aircraft — a fancy term for crop dusters attached with missiles and machine guns. It’s a classically Washington tale of government waste, congressional interference, and Pentagon indecision.


Pentagon gets caught in immigration debate: Last week, the Pentagon got caught in a media firestorm after the Associated Press reported it quietly let go 40 foreign-born recruits in a special program aimed at attracting immigrants and asylum-seekers with special skills or languages. The Military Times now reports the majority of the remaining recruits, numbering around 1,000, could be cut from the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest, or MAVNI program, thanks to background check delays.


And now for some good news, all the way from east Africa: Ethiopia and Eritrea signed a declaration formally ending a 20-year war following a landmark meeting over the weekend. The neighboring countries fought a bloody border war from 1998 to 2000 that killed at least 70,000 people, and have been locked in a bitter cold war standoff ever since. New Ethio­pian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed visited the Eritrean capital of Asmara to meet with his counterpart, President Isaias Afwerki on Sunday to formalize the peace deal. Now, the two countries will reopen their embassies, re-establish direct phone lines between the countries, and land-locked Ethiopia will be granted access to Eritrean ports.


Speaking of east Africa: China reminds us yet again it’s becoming a major player in Africa. Djibouti, the host of American, Chinese and French naval bases, signed on to a new free trade zone that it would jointly operate with China, Reuters reports. Dalian Port Corporation is now tasked to build the $3.5 billion trade facility that would strengthen the ties between China and countries in the Horn of Africa.


A battle over breastfeeding: The newest diplomatic fight between the United States and international organizations is all about breastfeeding. As the New York Times reports, the World Health Organization was all set to approve a resolution supporting breastfeeding and warning of the unhealthy impacts of breastmilk substitutes for babies. But then the U.S. delegation came out swinging against the resolution, threatened other countries with trade measures and withdrawing military aid if they didn’t water down the resolution. “The resolution as originally drafted placed unnecessary hurdles for mothers seeking to provide nutrition to their children,” a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spokesman told the New York Times.


The U.S. efforts largely failed, thanks to Russia stepping up to introduce the measure (…yes, we’re as confused about this whole thing as you are). The episode left many foreign diplomats and public health officials scratching their heads, both bewildered and angry.


A Brexit exit: Brexit Secretary David Davis resigned on Sunday, only two days after British Prime Minister Theresa May had managed to work out an agreement with her cabinet about a soft Brexit plan, which included a “UK-EU free trade area.” Davis’s exit, triggering that of his fellow ministers Steve Baker and Suella Braverman, has sent May’s government scrambling for new members and a strategy to sell hardliners on the cabinet deal. On Monday, May appointed Dominic Raab, a pro-Brexit lawmaker, to replace Davis.


A Trump baby blimp above London: When Trump visits London on his upcoming overseas tour, he will be greeted by a giant orange baby blimp version of himself. The mayor’s office confirmed that the blimp, a legitimate form of political protest, has received its approval to fly over Parliament Square Garden. Londoners don’t appear to be the biggest fans of Trump: The president canceled plans for a trip to London earlier this year, and London Mayor Sadiq Khan said it was all thanks to plans of mass protests.


Death by poison: A 44-year-old British woman, Dawn Sturgess, died after being exposed to residual traces of Novichok, a Soviet-era nerve agent which the British government insists that Russia had used to poison former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, the New York Times reports. The death of a British citizen will likely further chill diplomatic relations between Britain and Russia, who is now enjoying the international spotlight as the host of the 2018 World Cup.


Tackling trolls: Twitter has significantly ramped up its effort to suspend fake accounts, removing more than one million each day, the Washington Post reports. The removal rate has more than doubled since last October, when the company faced congressional pressure on revealing Russia’s interference in the 2016 election cycle through the network.


But Russian bots are still busy: Internet watchdogs link a popular Twitter hashtag #WalkAway, which attacks the Democratic party, to Russian bots, the Huffington Post writes. The hashtag has been used by former Democrats to express outrage at the party’s divisiveness and lack of civility. Actively operating in the critical period before the 2018 midterm election, these bots generated a flood of similarly worded posts that mostly claim the Democratic Party was “bullying” its political opponents.


‘You’re fired’: The Turkish government on Sunday fired more than 18,500 state employees, which include police officers, soldiers, civil servants, and academics, citing fear that they are linked to terrorist organization, Agence-France Press reports. Turkey has been under a state of emergency since a coup attempt to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in July 2016. But after Erdogan’s narrow win in last month’s presidential elections, he doesn’t appear to be going anywhere soon.


Island real estate: The Chinese government is now allowing individuals to develop the uninhabited islands in the Paracel chain, which is located in the hotly contested water of the South China Sea, Japan Times writes. Developers, after paying the government for using the land, may lay claim to these islets for up to 50 years and build infrastructure for purposes that range from tourism to mining.


U.S. warships pass through Taiwan: Two American destroyers sailed through the Taiwan Strait on Sunday as the latest round of support for Taipei, Japan Times reports. The passing comes amid an escalating trade war between Washington and Beijing, which has ramped up its military exercises near the island.


China Mobile to be denied U.S. market: The National Telecommunications and Information Administration advised last week that the Federal Communications Commission block China Mobile, a Chinese state-owned telecommunications company, from entering the U.S. market, citing national security concerns. Claiming that its recommendation is not informed by threats like Huawei and ZTE, the NTIA said “China’s record of intelligence activities and economic espionage targeting the U.S., along with China Mobile’s size and technical and financial resources” were the main reasons underpinning its decision.


Big Brother’s watching: China is using cutting-edge technologies like facial recognition and artificial intelligence to build a modern, tech-reliant authoritarian government, the New York Times reports. It can surveil 1.4 billion people through millions of cameras installed in cities big and small. Technologies that first started as a way to embarrass jaywalkers at crosswalks are now being molded into controlling means for a dystopian regime.


Dear Raul… According to North Korea’s state-run media, a top North Korean official delivered a personal letter from Kim Jong Un to Raul Castro, leader of the Cuban communist party, Yonhap News reports. The diplomatic exchange shows how Pyongyang aims to restore old alliances with the world beyond South Korea and the United States in nuclear talks.  


New Zealand rolls out new strategic defense policy: Washington’s friend and fellow Five Eyes partner down south has rolled out a new defense policy report that names China and Russia as top threats, Defense New writes. New Zealand Defense Minister Ron Mark issued a report that highlights China’s aggressive military presence in disputed maritime areas as well as Russia brushing off of international laws and norms and its election meddling. New Zealand is also fretting over the United States. “Uncertainty about the future international role of the United States has disruptive implications in itself,” the report says.


Boeing courts Brazil: As Boeing tries to move forward with its plans to acquire Brazilian aerospace company Embraer, the Brazilian government, which has veto power over any change in Embraer’s controlling interest, will closely scrutinize the joint venture with the Chicago-based aircraft manufacturer, the Associated Press reports.


Lockheed locks in win in Japan: Lockheed Martin has emerged as the winning bidder in Japan’s search for a new radar system, Reuters reports. The country is looking to deploy two Aegis Ashore batteries by 2023 to shore up its missile defense system as it keeps a watchful eye on China and North Korea. The purchase may ease tensions with Trump, who has railed against America’s trade deficit with Japan.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Amy Cheng is an editorial intern covering defense and security. Born and raised in Beijing, she spent the summer of 2017 interning for the New York Times on topics such as censorship regulations and Chinese investment overseas. She is a rising senior majoring in Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale University, where she currently serves as the online editor of the Yale Daily News. Twitter: @Amy_23_Cheng